The endangered saiga antelope has had a rough few years in Kazakhstan, hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horns and wracked by a deadly sickness that has seen thousands of these endangered long-nosed antelopes perish on the steppe.
Yet amid all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope: Kazakhstan’s saiga population has more than doubled over the last five years, according to figures released by the Ministry for Environmental Protection.
The country’s saiga population now stands at 137,000 against just 61,000 five years ago, the ministry said. The news comes less than two years after officials reported that efforts to conserve this creature – listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List – were bearing fruit as numbers passed the symbolic 100,000 mark in Kazakhstan.
The population has since grown by over a third, but today’s figures are still a far cry from Kazakhstan’s million-strong population of the 1970s. Since then the saiga – an unusual-looking creature with a distinctive long, humped nose that allows it to filter air during the dusty summer months and breathe warm air during the freezing winters – has been hunted mercilessly by poachers for its horn, which is prized in Chinese medicine.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held its annual military exercises last week in Kazakhstan, and from what we can tell from the official statements about the exercise, it represented a continuation of the trend toward a lessening of the organization's military importance.
The scenario of the exercise, which was held in Shymkent, was a pretty typical one, reports China Radio International:
The drill stimulates a situation where terrorists enter Kazakhstan by helicopters and automobiles, hijack hostages in a bordering village and attempt to conduct terrorist activities.
The mission is for counter forces from SCO member countries to crack down on the terrorist group and rescue hostages through both ground and aerial operations.
MiG-29 fighters forced a plane which had illegally infiltrated Kazakhstan's air space to land. Then, they showed witnesses at attempt to seize a reinforced checkpoint. And then, airborne forces neutralized a group of terrorists. In addition, the special forces demonstrated the storming of a house in which criminals held hostages. On the order to release the hostages, the terrorists responded with fire.
Armed forces and armored personnel carriers went to the site of battle. Aviation supported the ground attack. At the same time wounded security forces were evacuated. The special forces used flash-bang grenades. They freed the hostages and captured the hostages as they tried to escape.
Nurtay Abykayev, the chairman of Kazakhstan's security council, said "Of course the scenario is possible. A terrorist is a terrorist. He can be armed with any weapon, so we need to work comprehensively."
Water was the hot topic as the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan met in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on June 14.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, struck a conciliatory note over access to Central Asian water resources, a subject which Uzbek leader Islam Karimov last year warned could lead to war.
“A great deal depends for our future on how [Central Asian states] cooperate and trust each other and together resolve our questions without hindering other states,” Nazarbayev said in remarks quoted by state news agency Kazinform.
“Our approaches on many aspects, including the water problem in the region, coincide,” he said of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. “And we want to send a friendly message to our neighbors that we ourselves have to resolve these questions. There are no unresolvable problems and questions.”
Speaking of the plans of neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build hydropower projects on Central Asian rivers upstream, which Karimov strongly opposes, Nazarbayev said disputes could be resolved “only on the basis of negotiations and the strengthening of mutual trust, without confrontation.”
Karimov has long been a vociferous opponent of plans by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to complete long-stalled hydropower dam projects -- Rogun on the Vakhsh River (the headwaters of the Amu-Darya) in Tajikistan and Kambarata on the Naryn River (which becomes the Syr-Darya) in Kyrgyzstan.
Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Americans are still forbidden from adopting Kazakh children, an official in Astana has said. The ban will continue until Kazakhstan receives a satisfactory explanation from US authorities about the circumstances in which two orphans from the Central Asian state were found in a home for troubled kids last year.
The two children were found on a ranch housing children with “deviant behavior” in July 2012, Raisa Sher, chairwoman of the government’s Committee for the Protection of Children’s Rights, told Tengri News on June 12.
She did not name the children’s home, but last July there were children from Kazakhstan among those staying at the Ranch for Kids Project in Montana when a group of Russian officials turned up with a film crew in tow to demand access to Russian orphans and created an outcry when they were refused.
The ranch describes itself as “a respite care home for adopted children who are experiencing difficulties in their families.” Russian children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, a member of the delegation that visited last summer, described it as “a trash can for unwanted children.”
Sher said that Astana had not received “information” from the American authorities despite requesting clarification over the incident, and therefore “we are not renewing the adoption procedure with the United States of America until we receive a response from that country under the Hague Convention on the fulfilment of international obligations.”
The wife of fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been deported from Italy to Kazakhstan, where she is facing a criminal investigation as Astana steps up its four-year campaign against the businessman.
Alma Shalabayeva was arrested on the outskirts of Rome overnight May 28-29 along with her six-year-old daughter, Alua Ablyazova, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor’s office confirmed on June 3. Spokesman Nurdaulet Suindikov said Shalabayeva was arrested in possession of a forged passport “with clear signs of fictitiousness, supposedly issued by the Central African Republic in the name of Ayan Alma.”
He said Shalabayeva, currently residing with relatives in Almaty, is under investigation in Kazakhstan for forgery offenses and has signed an agreement not to leave the city.
Ablyazov has accused the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of “kidnapping” his wife and daughter. In a Facebook posting on June 3, he questioned the speed of the deportation and said his wife had told him she was flown out of Italy on a “luxurious” chartered aircraft accompanied by consular staff from Kazakhstan.
Her Italian lawyer, Riccardo Olivo, also questioned the rapid unfolding of events. “It is incredible how quickly this took place,” he told Reuters on June 1. “They handed her over as a hostage to a dictator and this is very grave.”
Archeologists in Kazakhstan have discovered the ancient grave of a young woman who has acquired the nickname “Princess of the Scythians.”
The elaborate tomb was found in Urdzhar district in eastern Kazakhstan during road repairs, Tengri News reports, quoting expedition leader Timur Smagulov. A team of lecturers and students was called in to investigate, and the group unearthed a stone sarcophagus containing the body of a young girl.
The “Princess of the Scythians” was clearly a prominent figure, judging by the treasures buried with her, most notably a gold headdress decorated with figures of animals and topped with arrowheads. It is similar to the one worn by Kazakhstan’s most famous archeological find, the Golden Man – a Scythian warrior prince interred wearing some 4,000 gold ornaments.
This type of headdress was part of the ceremonial clothing that the leaders of the Scythians – who inhabited the Eurasian steppe in ancient times – used to parade in, Smagulov said. “It is quite possible that the buried woman was the daughter of a king of the Saka Tigrakhuda tribe.”
The grave – which also contained ceramics and the bones of a sacrificed sheep – is believed to date from the 4th or 3rd century BC, the same period as the Golden Man’s burial site.
Amazing archeological finds are nothing new for Kazakhstan. Back in 2010 archeologists discovered the tomb of a gold-clad ancient Scythian warrior, nicknamed “The Sun Lord,” whose torso was entirely covered with gold.
The U.S. State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism," which purports to summarize and analyze the "terrorist" threats around the world. Here is the report's summary of Central Asia in 2012:
Despite the absence of major terrorist incidents on their territory, governments in the five Central Asian states were concerned about the possibility of a growing threat connected to changes in the international force presence in Afghanistan in 2014. While some sought to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to the perceived terrorist threat, the effectiveness of their efforts was in some cases undercut by failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other.
On the occasion of last year's report, Myles Smith wrote on EurasiaNet that "For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – 'reportedly'; 'potentially' – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us." A year later, there's really nothing to add to that analysis. But it's worth noting that, if the U.S. is spending increasing amounts of money, and making counter-terror assistance an increasingly large part of U.S. activity in the area, it might behoove Washington to be a little clearer about what exactly it is that this money and diplomatic effort are being directed at.
Looking at the individual country listings is instructive. Here is Tajikistan's summary:
Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court has freed six people jailed for their roles in fatal unrest in December 2011, when police opened fire on protestors in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
The ruling, which surprised many observers, suggests that the authorities are making further moves to put behind them a bout of turmoil that left 15 civilians dead and damaged the reputation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration. The unrest spun out of a protracted energy sector strike that the government acknowledges was mishandled.
The Supreme Court ruled on May 28 to free six of 13 Zhanaozen protestors jailed last June, Tengri News reports. The ruling left their convictions intact but suspended their sentences.
The sentences of seven others jailed after a controversial trial last year amid allegations of torture, including prominent strike leader Roza Tuletayeva, were left unchanged. Tuletayeva was originally handed a seven-year sentence; it was cut to five on appeal.
Of four protestors jailed separately over a bout of related violence in the town of Shetpe near Zhanaozen, one was freed by the Supreme Court on appeal in January.
Kazakhstan’s self-appointed morality police are taking on the gay and lesbian community: In recent weeks, lawmakers’ homophobic rants have echoed through the hallowed halls of parliament as they call for homosexuality to be criminalized.
Homosexuality is “amorality of the highest degree,” blustered deputy Aldan Smayyl in parliament on May 22, Kazakhstan Today reported.
“A law should be adopted which would allow [homosexuals] to be considered criminals against humanity,” Smayyl – who represents the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – continued.
He has sent a query to Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov about adopting a law and is awaiting a response.
“In Almaty there are already 20 gay clubs; in Astana four clubs! What sort of disgrace is this?” Smayyl ranted in further remarks broadcast on KTK TV.
His bid to criminalize homosexuality – which flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all – comes as the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are increasingly the subject of public debate in Kazakhstan, partly sparked by a symbolic lesbian wedding held last month.
There is no legal mechanism for gay marriage in Kazakhstan, nor is any planned. But that didn’t stop parliamentary deputy Kairbek Suleymenov (another Nur Otan stalwart) from demanding action against something that doesn’t exist.